Naval Warfare Books

Book reviews

The Bismarck Episode

Grenfell, Russell

1972, P. Smith
ISBN 0844640247
Hardcover, 219 pages, 8 pages of photos

Type. General History
Pros. Official access to sources years ahead of other authors. Solid style, not a lowbrow account.
Cons. Lacks German content. Not widely available. Dated by Kennedy, Schofield, Mullenheim-Rechberg.

Completed in 1948, when memories of the war were still very recent, Grenfell's book was the standard English text for many years. He had some access to official documents not available until 1971, as he was more or less commissioned by the Admiralty to present the official view, though not as an Official publication. As such, this book covered the subject in particular, while Roskill's later Official History [1954-63] gave the overall picture of the war at sea. Official access thus made his text more accurate and less shallow than some more commercial works of later years. It suffered only from a highly conventional style and approach, and a naturally limited amount of information from the German side. German works naturally also suffered from a bias toward their own operations, and occasionally wild wartime eyewitness reports.

Today it is chiefly useful to the historian as an example of what was known and believed in the immediate post-war era. For the casual reader or buff, this book nevertheless gives many pieces of minor information and anecdote not included in later works, especially biographical and personal notes about minor officers, which gives a fuller picture for the specialist. It also is steeped in wartime ideology and emotion, especially about Hood, Prince of Wales, and men such as Eugene Esmonde, who were later lost in other operations, and an 'Admiralty' feel to the subject, for those who appreciate the Lordlike tone and majesty of official documentation.

It also has a fine set of maps of the North Atlantic and the courses and dispositions of the ships, which are vital to comprehending the situation throughout, and many interesting photographs not used in later works. Some of these especially have a gritty, hazy wartime feel to them, unlike the posed, static, stock shots often used to illustrate the ships involved, in later works.

Like all works, it can never be a complete or final word on the subject, and must be used in concert with other books and media to achieve a deep broad viewpoint. While lacking details of the German side, and of Ultra and other then-secret materials affecting Admiralty decision-making, Grenfell nonetheless provided a vital perspective on the operation from a period when most of the materials and men were available to be synthesised and presented.

The reviewer welcomes your comments on this review.

Review written by Ian Campbell.

Published on 1 Dec 2000.

This title is highly recommended.

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